The Astros County census report is going to give you, the readers, a look into the minds behind Astros County on a variety of different subjects. Census #1 covers the major league squad with some of our writers chiming in on a position player, starter, and bullpen arm to watch.
If you have an idea for a census report, please hit me up on twitter @cardsjason or email me your idea firstname.lastname@example.org and you will likely see it on the site.
Let's get to it.
Not Hank Aaron @Aarcraft9
Jose Altuve was one of the few bright spots on a pretty dismal team last year. He was the only Astros hitter who qualified for the batting title, and ended the season with respectable .290/.340/.399. For a 22 year old second baseman it was certainly a very good season. But it wasn't a great season. After going .303/.344/.438 in the first half, he dropped to .274/.336/.351. An across the board drop, but especially in the power department. His wRC+ in the first half was 114, which matched Dustin Pedroia and Martin Prado, both 4+ win players, but his second half wRC+ matched Carlos Lee and Omar Infante. This will be a big year for Altuve, as he tries to take a step forward, or at least maintain his first half pace all year. We've noted that Altuve's top 22 year old comp is Rod Carew, but that's a bit misleading. Carew wasn't Carew at 22. Carew's first .300+ season, and his first batting title was at the age of 23. I don't think Altuve will become Rod Carew, but I think he has the capability to be more than he was last year. I think this will be the year he starts to show it. Expect a .300 plus batting average, with similar improvements to his OBP and slugging percentage, matching or exceeding his first half splits all year. Thing is, if Altuve doesn't start showing significant improvements soon, DDJ will be nipping at his heels.
With the right lens Bud Norris took a huge step forward last year. The particular lens required is one that ignores all road starts. Its kind of remarkable to look at the stats. 1.71 ERA with a 2.57 FIP at home compared to 6.94 and 5.52 on the road. And it wasn't just the ERA. He seemed to be a completely different pitcher. At home he had a K/9 over 10 and a K/BB of 4.82. The K rate fell to 7.89 and the K/BB fell to 1.69 on the road. Hitters on the road hit a full .100 points better against him than at home. And this was a new development. He was almost exactly the same on the road and at home in 2011, and did not show as significant a split in 2010 or 2009 either. I don't see any reason why this wide split will continue this year, but it will be interesting to see which of the two sides of Norris represented his true self.
Fields was picked up from Boston in the Rule 5 draft, and made the club in the final cut. Fields has never had a K/9 rate below 8.8 at any point in his minor league career. Unfortunately, until 2012, he had also never had a BB/9 rate under 5. In 13 innings at Triple AAA Tacoma in 2011, he pitched 13 innings, with 13 strikeouts and 13 walks. Not particularly meaningful, but a fun line nonetheless. Something appeared to click in 2012, as he dropped his walk rate to 2.8 over two levels, and actually increased his strikeout rate from the previous year. Was this improved control a mirage? He didn't show it in spring training, as his walk rate jumped back up over 5. Fields sticking this year depends entirely on whether he duplicates his 2012 walk rate in this majors. If he does, I could see him becoming a late inning weapon, potentially even a closer option. If he doesn't, he will go back to Boston, and back to Triple A, to see if he can recapture the control there.
Jason Phelps @JasonPhelps33
Many, including myself, thought he'd be a stalwart in the middle of the order for the next 10 years when we made the trade to add the young CI. Wallace's amateur pedigree is the stuff of legend in California and Arizona, 2-time All-American and 2-time PAC-10 player of the year. After being a 13th overall pick by St. Louis, he continued a great level of success in MiLB, where he has a career OPS of .871 over parts of 5 seasons. But that success hasn't been replicated at the Major league level, and only brief flashes of a power bat have been seen (2 HR game against the Brewers on 8/1/12). While he's made some adjustments to his swing and body over the past couple seasons, I believe this to be the year when he actualizes that potential into a full season of productive AB's at the highest level. Many guys make their jump at 27 years old and that happens to be this year for Brett. IMO, moving to the AL could have a huge impact on him as much as anyone on the team. It’s another fresh start, just this time he's prepared and going to take advantage. I see a .285/.365/.860 for The Walrus.
Who knows what the Astros are getting with the veteran pitcher, because the organization has been pretty quiet about the slow spring he has had due to a strained butt. Erik, when healthy, is a quality pitcher that doesn’t allow many base runners while owning a top shelf curveball. Unfortunately at times he has struggled with injuries and more injuries. Bedard was tabbed as the opening day starter for the Pirates last year and wasn’t on the team at all by the end of August. At the age of 34, he still has time on his meter as a potential contributor to the franchise and nailing down the 5th starter role might be just what he needs to get back on track. The Canadian hurler has to get healthy and stay healthy for any chance at reviving a once promising career and he’s another guy that will benefit from a move to the AL West where he has seen so much of his success. Fingers crossed! I’d love to see 25 starts out of Erik, but I’m going to bet on 15 and be happy if he’s effective during those outings. Look for a K/9 around 8.0 with a 1.20 whip and a stint or two on the DL.
The Astros paid 2 million to acquire the services of Veras and then immediately named him the closer. For the record, Jose has converted 5 of 17 SVO in his 7 year big league career. He was DFA’d by the Yankees and Indians in 09 has bounced around a bit, making contributions as a set up guy in Florida, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. His style is not for the faint of heart, throwing gas up to 98 mph, while mixing a hard slider while controlling neither. He avoids contact while striking guys out very regularly, but walking a ton of dudes in the process. Jose is a large gentleman going 6’6” 240, and definitely looks the part, and played one as well in the WBC. Hopefully he can reel in some of the wild stuff and continue to put guys away. There may not be many SVO this season but he needs to close every chance he gets for the Astros to have a chance at finishing out of the cellar. Imo, the bullpen is a sneaky good asset to the team if he can become the pitcher that his arm could allow him to be. However, should the team fall out of contention; he will be a fine rental for a team making a run to the playoffs and one of the other fine young arms will get a chance to close.
Bryan Trostel @The_Batguy
When Castro was picked 10th overall in the 2008 draft, it was considered a bit of a reach. Many thought Houston should have taken Justin Smoak instead, who went #11 to Texas. It was said Castro would be an average ML catcher; a high floor, low ceiling type of pick. After proving he could handle minor league pitching for a couple years, he was brought up to Houston after Ivan Rodriguez was traded and he promptly put up numbers similar to Biggio's first season. This, of course, led many to write him off as a bust. Heading into the 2011 season as the anointed starting catcher, he jacked his knee up causing him to miss the entire season. Of course, as a catcher, knees are kind of important and, I believe, he was still not back to full strength heading into 2012. He started the season hitting just .254/.330/.379 before going back on the DL for a month. After his return, however, he hit .261/.343/.443 with 4 HR in 88 at bats, good for a 117 OPS+. I don't put much stock in spring training stats, but reports out of Kissimmee are that he has his legs back under him and he's driving the ball and playing better defense behind the plate. I look for Castro to put together a strong season, somewhere along the lines of .260/.340/.420 with 10-15 home runs while improving his defense behind the dish.
Harrell had a breakout season in 2012 despite being a groundball pitcher (58%) with one of, if not the worst defense in the league behind him. This year's defense should be an improvement over last season's so it's not unreasonable to expect that even more of those groundballs will turn into outs in 2013. The combination of Wallace and Pena at first should roughly equal a surprisingly solid 1B defense from Carlos Lee last season, another year of experience should help Altuve, the combo of Cedeno and Gonzalez should be an upgrade over Lowrie, and Dominguez is a substantial upgrade over Johnson. I think the key for Harrell this season may be his walk rate, which was an above average (in a bad way) 3.6BB/9 last year. If all that plays out I could see Harrell putting up a 3.50 ERA and proving that he's a solid major league starter.
I really don't know what to expect out of Cruz this season. It all boils down to control and command, because he definitely has the stuff to pitch in the back end of the bullpen. The knock on Cruz, dating back to his time in the minors, has been walk rate. Last season it was 4.7BB/9. If he can bring this down into the 3's, batters will be forced to start swinging the bat more against him, which should lead to an increased strikeout rate as well. Another concern of his last season was home runs, though his 1.3HR/9 was much higher than the 0.7 he had in the minors. I don't see Cruz taking a big step forward in 2013. That said, if he can put up an ERA around 4.00 to 4.50 while reigning in the walks I think it will be something to build on going into 2014. I think more likely is that he continues to struggle with his control and ends up either back in the minors or off the roster completely.
In spite of his arguably borderline Major League credentials, "Barnyard" has quickly become one of my favorite Astros. He has the kind of back story that fans love to root for - toiled for 7 long years in the minors, team cut him loose, he re-signed anyway to give it one more go, then he put up a career year in the minors and finally broke through to the big show. Plus, those tattoos! The question is, will 2013 see the guy who hit .321/.381/.514 in AA/AAA last year (and similarly well this spring), or the guy who struggled to a .204/.250/.265 line in 105 PAs after being called up last August? I expect that reality lies somewhere in between. Brandon's role on this team is likely that of fourth or fifth outfielder, but should one of the regulars falter and he's given the chance, 2013 is his chance prove himself a solid big league player.
Erik Bedard: Of the handful of starters that Jeff Luhnow took a flyer on this winter, the Canadian lefty strikes me as the most intriguing. Yes, he just turned 34, and yes, he's six years removed from pitching over 130 innings in a season. He's also six years removed from finishing fifth in the AL Cy Young voting. But if he remains healthy (strained gluteals aside), even a 3.62 ERA as he posted in 2011 would have led the Astros 2012 staff. His K/9 ratio has never wavered far from his 8.7 career mark, so he can still throw strikes. He won't challenge for a Cy Young again, but even if Lucas Harrell repeats his 2012 and Bud Norris exorcises his road demons, it's entirely possible that Bedard is Houston's best starter by season's end.
It might be a red flag for your team if they choose their new closer from the team with the worst bullpen in the Majors the year before (2012 Brewers, 4.66 ERA and 29 blown saves - both MLB worsts). It's not a huge confidence boost when your new closer comes in with a grand total of five career saves over seven big league seasons, either. But Veras might not be that disastrous of a choice after all. He's put up a 10.0 K/9 or better for each of the last three seasons; his 10.6 K/9 last season would have been the highest of any Houston reliever with at least 40 IP since Brad Lidge's 11.8 in 2007. He was stung last season by a .324 BABIP - 50 points higher than his career mark. His walk numbers are legitimately scary, staying consistently around his career average of 4.9 BB/9. But if that BABIP regresses as it should and he doesn't pitch himself into too many corners, Veras at least ought to be another useful trade chip for Luhnow by the time that July rolls around.
The Astros acquired Chris Carter via trade this offseason that sent Jed Lowrie to Oakland. Carter was signed as a SS but played 1B and DH in Oakland. He will be fielding LF (to the best of his ability) for the Astros this season as well as spending some time at DH and possibly 1B. Last season Carter his 16 home runs in 218 AB, a rate of every 13.6 at bats. In those 218 AB Chris struck out 83 times, a K every 2.6 AB. So with the power swing also come a high K rate. Carter had an OBP of 350 last season. If Carter can get his strike out numbers down, his 30+ home run potential could mean a monster year for the LF. However, Carter may be battling Carlos Pena and Justin Maxwell for the highest strikeout totals for the 2013 Astros.
After spending two full seasons at the Major League level Jordan Lyles will start this year at AAA. I know what you are thinking, I thought this was the Major League census and didn't Lyles get assigned to AAA? Yes and yes, but I see Lyles contributing to the Major League club this year after spending a short amount of time in OKC. Lyles posted a 5.09 ERA last season, .27 points lower than the previous season. His strikeouts went up from 67 to 99 but he also pitched 47 more innings. (A strike out about every 1.4 IP) Lyles walked about 3 batters every 9 IP. There was a lot said about Lyles rise in velocity last season. If he can harness that bump in velocity and combine it with his plus pitchability, Lyles has the potential for an improved season. However, there are plenty of question marks after he posted a 17.74 spring era in just over 11 IP.
One of two left handed option Bo Porter has out of his bullpen this year, Cedeno 36 K's in 31 IP last year. His location of his fastball and breaking ptiches make him very effective against left handed hitters. However, because he doesn't throw that hard his offerings to righties don't fare as well. Most likely Cedendo will be used by Porter as a specialty arm out of this pen to get out left handed hitters.
Look for census report #2 in early April to get the low down on how the crew at Astros County feels about the players to watch this season in the minors. And please shoot me an email or a tweet if you have an idea for the Astros County census report.